Friday, December 6th, 2013

Involuntary Confession Erroneously Admitted at Conspiracy Trial Warrants New Trials for All Three Co-Defendants


This published decision vacated three defendants’ convictions for conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery of a Manhattan pharmacy in 2008 and brandishing of a firearm. The Court remanded for new trials after determining that interrogating agents took undue advantage of one defendant’s diminished mental state and overbore his will in obtaining what was held to be an involuntary confession. The Court further held that admitting the tainted confession at trial, even with a limiting instruction, was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to all three defendants.

According to the opinion, Vasquez drove Taylor, Rosario and a woman named Luana Miller to rob a pharmacy in Manhattan on Christmas Eve in 2008. With Miller already inside posing as a customer after hours, Rosario entered the pharmacy brandishing a gun and announced the robbery. Vasquez demanded OxyContin and along with Miller took controlled substances, cash and subway cards. All the while, Taylor remained a lookout at the front door with Vasquez waiting in the getaway car.

In January 2009, Miller was arrested on outstanding warrants. In hopes of benefitting, she cooperated regarding the pharmacy robbery. On April 9, 2009, the FBI and NYPD arrested Taylor at his apartment around 6:00 a.m. Taylor claimed he ingested a bottle-full of Xanax pills at that time as part of a suicide attempt. His interrogation began around 9:30 a.m. with Agents Burch and Tomas. Taylor signed a Miranda form and confessed. He provided a second confession to Tomas the morning of April 10 prior to arraignment.

At an evidentiary hearing on motions to suppress Taylor’s statements, Burch testified that Taylor was coherent at times during the two to three hour interrogation on April 9, but also described how Taylor nodded off, how Taylor’s body was shutting down, and how Taylor had to be “refocused” by agents. Post-interrogation, agents took Taylor to the hospital rather than the jail. According to Tomas, they questioned whether the Marshals Service would assume custody of someone who “might be off.” Taylor slept the rest of the day at the hospital before going to the MCC that evening.

Witness testimony revealed that MCC psychologists examined Taylor the morning of April 10, at which time he exhibited a thought disorder, drooled, was vague, stared blankly and lacked spontaneity with his thoughts. With an impaired thought process, Taylor could not elaborate when asked questions. Taylor told doctors he tried to kill himself by ingesting Xanax.

Later that morning, Taylor proceeded to arraignment. Tomas testified that while awaiting a pretrial services officer, Taylor told him that he wanted to clear up issues about the charges. Tomas re-delivered Miranda warnings and Taylor confessed again. The pretrial services officer who then met with Taylor testified that Taylor appeared sleepy, had to be woken up for the interviewed, fell asleep several times during questions, but was awake and coherent at times.

The Court quickly held that Taylor’s reading, acknowledging and signing an advice of rights form before making statements was a knowing and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights. The evidence indicated that Taylor was lucid and knew what was going on at this time.

The Court held, however, that Taylor’s statements were involuntary under the totality of the circumstances. Taylor could not summon the will to make a knowing and voluntary decision due to his Xanax ingestion. Taylor’s body language and his falling asleep during the interrogation, as well as the agents waking him and “coaxing him” to answer questions and focus, all supported such a conclusion. Moreover, agents knew that Taylor was in and out of consciousness during the April 9 questioning and was in a trance or stupor when awake. Their persistent interrogation “took undue advantage of Taylor’s diminished mental state.”

The Court also held that the April 10 confession was involuntary under the totality of the circumstances, i.e., the effects of the Xanax, and that the taint from the first confession carried over to the second confession despite renewed Miranda warnings. Less than a day elapsed between the two confessions and Taylor was hospitalized during that time. Despite interrogation occurring at different locations, Tomas was present at both. Finally, agents, psychologists and the pretrial services officer observed Taylor either falling asleep or being mentally impaired that day.

The Court concluded that admitting Taylor’s involuntary statements at trial was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. First, the confession was critical to the government’s case. Apart from the confession, the evidence against Taylor consisted of Miller’s testimony and GPS telephone data. Miller’s criminal history and the benefit she sought by cooperating subjected her testimony to attack. Though GPS evidence may have corroborated Miller’s version of their whereabouts, no other witness or evidence linked Taylor to the robbery. Second, the prosecution emphasized Taylor’s confessions throughout trial. Third, the confessions were important to the case because they corroborated Miller’s testimony. Fourth, the confessions were not cumulative to Miller’s testimony because a confession has a greater impact at trial than witness testimony.

Despite the district court’s limiting instruction regarding the use of Taylor’s statements against Taylor and not his co-defendants, the Court ultimately held that the erroneous admission of Taylor’s confessions was not harmless error in Rosario and Vasquez’s trials. Though the Court normally assumes that jurors follow limiting instructions, it explained that “a confession by one co-defendant in a joint trial poses substantial risk for the other co-defendants notwithstanding such an instruction.”

Because the government’s case relied “chiefly” on Taylor’s statements and “drew its strength” from those statements against Rosario and Vasquez respectfully, the confession was critical. Due to the remaining evidence being impeachable or inconclusive as to Rosario and Vasquez’s involvement in the robbery, the confession’s admission at their trial was not harmless error.


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